Celebrating the pioneering female filmmakers at the dawn of Hollywood.

Episode 3: Mabel Normand

Episode 3: Mabel Normand

Women of Hollywoodland celebrates the pioneering female filmmakers at the dawn of Hollywood in the 1910s and 1920s. This week, we meet the original Queen of Comedy – Mabel Normand.

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Episode Transcript

Welcome to Episode no 3 of Women of Hollywoodland, the podcast that uncovers the feminist dawn of Hollywood.

In some ways, this week’s episode should have been the first one, because we’re going to talk about the amazing Mabel Normand – and it’s really because of Mabel Normand that my whole obsession with early Hollywood and specifically the female filmmakers came about.

When I was a teenager, I went to see the movie Chaplin – which may or may not have had something to do with a wee crush on Robert Downey jr – and there was Mabel Normand, played by Marisa Tomei. Directing. My little future film student heart set alight at the sight of a woman, dressed like Mary Poppins – this was 1911, 1912 – and shouting at all these guys and telling them what to do.

 

The irony is of course, that in the 1992 movie, Dan Ackroyd’s Mack Sennett dismisses Normand’s talents as a director – to be fair, the scene is based on a true story, at least according Chaplin, as the movie is based on his autobiography. Normand directed Chaplin in 1914’s Mabel at the Wheel – that is true, and as Chaplin’s biographer Kenneth Lynne puts it: “In her role as director, she did not take her responsibilities lightly, as Chaplin would discover in a notably showdown between them.” They fell out when he wanted to add an extra bit of business to the scene and Normand – is as her right, as director – was like, “no, the scene is as it is, let’s just shoot” and Chaplin threw a strop.

 

That’s more or less how it happens in the film – in his autobiography Chaplin says “I could not take it – and from such a pretty girl.”  In his version, Sennett was totally on his side stepped in to supervise the direction of the rest of the picture. Now, the Keystone Company archives Mabel lists as the director, while Moving Picture World reported in 1914 that “Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett collaborated in the direction of this picture” – so that would seem to back up Chaplin’s version, that there was a switch at some point during filming.

 

In the movie Sennett puts Normand down as a director. He says something like “she thinks she can direct” and laughs — now whether or not that is what he said to calm Chaplin down, in reality, Mack Sennett had the utmost respect for Mabel Normand’s filmmaking talent. He had brought her out from New York to help him both establish and run Keystone Studios and his will stated that 50% of everything he had was to be left to her in recognition of her contribution to his empire. Unfortunately she died first, but it’s the thought that counts.

 

The actual Mack Sennett’s version of Chaplin’s early days in Hollywood was that his apprenticeship lasted for “a dozen one- and two-reel pictures,” during which time he “learned [to direct] from Mabel Normand.” And further, Chaplin may have objected to Normand’s direction on the grounds that she was a woman – but he had the exact same problems with Henry Lehrman, who Sennett then assigned to direct him – so I think we can maybe surmise that Normand’s gender wasn’t the awkward wee egomaniac here. Have you guessed that I’m not a big Chaplin fan?

 

Incidentally, you may or may not have known this, but it was Mack Sennett who erected the famous Hollywood sign – in those days, it read Hollywoodland, hence the name of this podcast. He bought that stretch of land in the Hollywood Hills intending to develop real estate on it and put up the sign as a kind of PR, look at how rich and fabulous I’m putting up a sign just because I can – then he lost all his money in the crash and never developed his real estate.

 

Before I go any further, it is important we establish that Mabel Normand was – awesome. I think I said before that if I could time travel I’d go for lunch with Frances Marion and Anita Loos, but actually scratch that – I’d go and hang out with Mabel Normand anywhere any time. Although, she was part of the girl gang too – when Mabel married Lew Cody in 1926, Frances Marion and Adela Rogers St Johns helped to throw her bridal shower – so hopefully I would be a lucky time traveller and find them all together.  And there would be cocktails. And Gary Cooper. Anyway.

 

I’m obviously in awe of Lois Weber’s talent and what she achieved but – Lois Weber once left a vaudeville theatre company because it “proved too superficial for her altruistic aims”, whereas Mabel Normand was, according to producer Hal Roach “the wildest girl in Hollywood,” and, when Hal Roach told her not to swear or talk dirty around young impressionable girls on the lot – swore more and talked dirtier.

 

Even once she was a huge star and the undisputed “Queen of Comedy”, she was famous around Los Angeles for being a menace behind the wheel of her lilac limousine. She was also witty, a voracious reader – even on her deathbed she was devouring book after book – she set out to learn French for no particular reason, she called Mary Pickford a “prissy bitch” – to a reporter – and she gave interviews like this:

 

  1. “What do you like best to do?”
  2. “Pinch babies and twist their legs. (Don’t dare publish this. People wouldn’t understand.)”
  3. “What do you most enjoy?”
  4. “Dark windy days when trees break and houses blow down.”
  5. “Favorite flower?”
  6. “Weeds–if I buy them myself. Orchids otherwise. (But I’ll take anything.)”
  7. “Ideal man?”
  8. “A brutal Irishman who chews tobacco and lets the world know it. (Say a Gibson man. It’s more refined.)”
  9. Favorite food?”
  10. “Chocolate cake, iced and inch high. (Fat or no fat, I love it)

 

And I think we can all love a woman – a movie star no less – whose favourite food is chocolate cake iced an inch high.

 

You may recall I’ve mentioned once or twice that in the early days, writers directors stars producers all mucked in and did whatever was needed to be done then the credits were all but arbitrary – and nowhere was this more true than at Keystone. Karen Ward Mahar describes it in Women of Early Hollywood:

 

“At Keystone Studios, all employees within a production unit – actors director and crew – hammered out ideas for scenarios which were turned into scripts by the writing staff and submitted to Mack Sennett for approval. Even after approval each unit was free to improvise within certain limits during the shoot.”

 

So because of this process, it’s tricky to know exactly who was responsible for what, it really seems as though credits were all but arbitrary – and it’s for this reason that no one knows exactly how many movies Normand wrote or directed. What we do know for certain, is that she was a leading creative influence at one of the most successful studios in Hollywood, and unquestionably the “Queen of Comedy” of the teens.

 

In 1912, she listed as her profession “director” in the Los Angeles City directory, and in December 1913, Moving Picture World reported in December 1913 that the “leading woman of the Keystone Company, since its inception, is in the future to direct every picture she acts in. This will undoubtedly make Keystone more popular than ever.”

 

Normand was born in Staten Island in 1895. In what’s probably her definitive biography, Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood madcap, author Timothy Lefler says:

 

As an adult, when asked about her childhood, Mabel was often a cheerful and dedicated liar. Even amongst close friends, the first chapter of her life was noticeably vague. A deflective joke. A flippant reply. Endearing, but not revealing.

 

It’s suggested that this hints at her having grown up in the kind of poverty that doesn’t really make for amusing anecdotes, though Lefler later describes how while at school, Normand was a both dedicated and accomplished athlete, and “Never mindful of Victorian etiquette, she routinely defeated both boys and girls alike.” Have I mentioned that she was awesome?

 

We do know that in her early teens she went out to help support her family by modelling, most notably for Charles Dana Gibson, as in “Gibson Girls” – arguably the turn of the 20th century’s answer to Victoria’s Secret Models, in terms of being a go-to ultimate in feminine beauty. Mabel Normand was certainly gorgeous – Frances Marion would once describe her as “a girl whose complexion makes you think of gardenias” –  but even in those early images it’s really her personality that shines through – she really established that funny, vivacious, ballsy sexy type that in decades to come Carole Lombard, Barbara Windsor and Goldie Hawn would embody.

 

Sure enough, she soon came to the attention of DW Griffith who was then directing at Biograph in New York. But Griffith – who would soon go on to make Birth of a Nation and Intolerance – was a dramatic director, and Normand was interested in comedy. Griffith’s assistant at the time was Mack Sennett, and Normand and Sennett quickly became collaborators, close friends and – most historians agree – a couple, at least for a time.

 

When Sennett struck out on his own to form the Keystone Studio, he took Mabel with him – the first Keystone release featured a short called The Water Nymph (in those days, because most films were shorts, it was common to release a couple together, almost like a single and a B side, for anyone old enough to remember those). The Water Nymph starred – and again, most probably was at least co written and co directed by – Mabel Normand.

 

In it, Normand wears a swimsuit which, by our standards is pretty modest, by simply by being tightly form fitting was scandalous – and it was meant to be. It was deliberately modelled on the suit that had got champion swimmer and diver Annette Kellerman arrested for indecency in Boston a couple of years before.

 

At Keystone, the dream team of comedy developed, with Sennett, Normand, Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. When Sennett first went along to see Chaplin perform with a touring company from England, Karno’s Komics, he brought Normand with him and it was she who persuaded Sennett to sign him. It was in a Mabel Normand film, “The Bangville Police”, that the legendary Keystone Kops first appeared, and it was another Mabel Normand Film – “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” that first featured Chaplin’s ‘The Little Tramp’ character. She came up with the pie in the face gag, that’s been used once or twice in the century since – and the iconic silent film image of a woman tied to railroad tracks? That’s Mabel Normand.

 

She was well known for doing all her own stunts – a review of one of her earliest hits Tillie’s Punctured Romance (and one with an awesome girl power ending, in which Mabel and Marie Dressler, having fought over Chaplin, decide to both dump him) – states that Normand “gives as good as she gets.” Producer Hal Roach, when asked what made Normand funny, replied, “you knew that if a guy kicked her, she’d kick him back” – which is a different take on gender equality, but okay.

 

And indeed a lot of her films ended up with her getting the best of some dopey guy – very often Chaplin – though there’s been a bit of a backlash about that kind of comedy lately, in the context of the the teens, an entire century ago – against, women couldn’t vote yet – it was pretty pioneering stuff. Indeed, critic of the time Julian Johnson reported that she “bulwarked all of the Keystone comedy with her own slender shoulders, and added “Normand knows more about screen comedy, and has made better screen comedy, than any woman actively photographed.”

 

In 1915, Keystone merged with the Triangle Film Company which, in a way was its undoing: Triangle was a more “professional” studio, for want of a better term, and insisted on proper scripts being developed and followed, which ruined that wild, madcap, improv style that had made Keystone Keystone. It wasn’t long before Chaplin, Arbuckle and then Normand were all off – and Sennett himself wasn’t far behind them.

 

In 1917 Normand announced that she had quit Keystone to establish the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company with Triangle’s boss Thomas Ince. Thomas Ince, you may have heard of because of his mysterious death aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht not ten years later – the, shall we say, unsubstantiated version is that Hearst shot him accidentally, whilst aiming for Chaplin who was having an affair with Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies. There was a pretty awful film made about it a couple of years ago with Kirsten Dunst playing Davies, The Cat’s Meow.

 

Anyway, at the time, Normand gave as her reason for leaving Keystone that she wanted to make more substantial films. “I wanted better pictures,” she said. “I was getting tired of grinding out short comedies to bolster up programmes in which other stars in other companies, as well as our own, were featured in pretentious films and were paid far more than I was.”

 

And this brings me to a general point that applies really to all the female filmmakers of the period – I love how seriously they took themselves. Do you remember, I think it was just last year, when there was a bit of a flurry of discussion about the wage gap and specifically how it applies to Hollywood – Jennifer Lawrence wrote an essay about how through the Sony hack she discovered how much less she’d been paid than male co stars, for Lena Dunham’s newsletter.

 

And one of the messages that came out was that female stars don’t negotiate as hard as men do – they’re just happy to be cast, and conscious of how much more they earn than the average person, so won’t quibble about another million dollars – even though their male co stars do. Lawrence said: “But if I’m honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem “difficult” or “spoiled.” “

 

But in the teens and twenties, women filmmakers had no such compunctions – Mabel Normand eventually earned $4000/week at a time when most Americans didn’t make that in a year. The very first actor to sign a contract to a studio worth a million dollars was Mary Pickford, and even in the late twenties, after this golden age for women in Hollywood was over, Greta Garbo was famous for going on strike whenever she didn’t think she was getting paid enough. Which, by the way, worked – she eventually signed a contract to Paramount in 1929 that made her the highest paid woman in America. So it’s interesting, that this so-called innate female quality of not demanding raises or negotiating the best deal possible, was established decades after women started working in the industry.

 

Under this ‘Mabel Normand Film Production Company’, Normand produced just one film, 1918’s Mickey. And Mickey is one of those frustrating stories in which almost every film historian describes it as a disaster – there was some mad story in which one of the directors kidnapped the footage, allegedly for non-payment – and point to the fact that the Mabel Normand Film Production Company dissolved soon after and she never produced independently again as proof that it was a failure.

 

It’s true that the budget definitely grew during production and the shoot kept getting extended with re-shoots, but these are most likely due to Normand’s failing health – she had suffered from tuberculosis on and off since the age of ten. Most importantly Mickey grossed $18 million dollars – making it one of the highest grossing films not only of the year, but of the entire era. The Journal and Republican called it “the greatest picture ever seen” – and it was such a hit that it was the first instance of a movie kicking off a whole style. In the mid twenties, a writer for Moving Picture World wrote that “Mickey became an epidemic. Mickey hats, dresses, clothes and pretty nearly everything else” filled thirty-seven storefront windows in one town alone. So the kind of disaster I think most filmmakers would be pretty cool with having produced.

 

After her company was disolved (which had more to do with Triangle’s money troubles than Mickey or Normand herself) Normand went to work for Samuel Goldwyn, releasing a string of hits between 1918 and 1920, before returning to work with Sennett who – having now left Keystone himself – was releasing comedies through Paramount. Incidentally, while based at his studio, Sam Goldwyn ran into some money troubles himself – as I mentioned last week, the post war recession hit Hollywood pretty hard – and one day, while he was in his office worrying over how he was going to pay his wage bill, Mabel Normand walked in and handed over a bond for $50,000, which saved the company. If she hadn’t, there quite concievably might not be an MGM today.

 

Now, I’ve quite deliberately avoided mention of her personal life, simply because that tends to be what everyone else focusses on. If anyone has heard of Mabel Normand any more these days, it’s probably as a cocaine addict (unsubstantiated, by the way), as the woman who allegedly threw herself from Santa Monica pier having discovered Mack Sennett in bed with another actress, or most famously, as the woman implicated in the murder of her close friend, director William Desmond Taylor in 1922. As the Women Film Pioneers project at Columbia University puts it: “scholars would do well to refocus attention on Normand’s distinctive contribution to early cinema and slapstick comedy, as well as the nature of her directorial work for Keystone.”

 

That said, it’s impossible not to mention that in the early twenties, her career was rocked by a series of scandals – her co star Roscoe Arbuckle was accused of raping and causing the death of a young actress over Labor Day weekend in 1921 – which I am actually planning an entire podcast series on very soon – and it was a scandal that dominated the news for the best part of that year and the next – picture OJ Simpson times ten. And while Arbuckle was still on trial, Paramount director William Desmond Taylor was shot in his home in February 1922 – and Mabel Normand was the last person to see him alive.

 

Though the Taylor case remains unsolved to this day, Normand was exonerated from the investigation fairly early on, and she had nothing to do with the Arbuckle scandal other than being professionally associated with him – but the fact remained that her name was kind of tainted by association with what became a huge concerted effort to clean up Hollywood’s so-called den of iniquity image.

 

Plus the idea that she was a cocaine addict was becoming more and more established. And maybe she was, we don’t know for sure either way – but most people refer to it as an established fact, and it really wasn’t. Eddie Sutherland, described an unnamed actor – this is to Kevin Brownlow in his pretty seminal work The Parade’s Gone By:

 

“Everyone who took drugs in the industry was started by this man. He was one of the quietest, nicest actors I’ve ever known. He put Mabel Normand on the junk, Wallie Ried, Alma Rubens. All three died as a direct result.”

 

Except that Mabel Normand died of tuberculosis, which casts a lot of accounts like that into doubt. Bear in mind, he was being interviewed in the sixties, so it’s hard to know to what extent he was just repeating rumours he heard at the time. Further, though, during the Taylor murder investigation allegedly several known LA dealers claimed to regularly serve her, detectives confirmed that no illicit drugs were ever actually found on her, or proven to be connected with her.

 

That said, it’s certainly true that she started looking more gaunt and underweight with each film after Mickey – but again, she had TB, she’d had it since childhood and her health was pretty steadily failing for a good decade before her death in 1928 at the age of 35. A press report of the time stated: “Miss Normand died at the Pottinger sanitarium, Monrovia, early Saturday morning, after waging a losing battle for over a year against tuberculosis…Miss Normand had wasted away until she weighed scarcely 50 pounds at the time of her death.”

Either way, she continued to work – right up until her death, she was shooting a film – but she was definitely demoted from major star to jobbing actress around the time of the scandals.

 

And – let’s just put our feminist tin hats on for a second – it’s all a little bit interesting from the point of view that all this went down – at the exact same time as Lois Weber was being systematically written out of Hollywood history. Not to suggest that Bill Taylor was killed in order to de-feminise Hollywood (though frankly, that’s about as likely a theory as many that have been bandied about in the century since his murder) – but there were a lot of rumours that connected Normand to the case, that were never substantiated by the police, despite one of the most thorough investigations California had ever seen.

 

The drugs connection, for example – the story went that Taylor might have been shot by drug dealers angry that Taylor was helping Normand get clean and so losing them a major customer, which is a pretty convoluted motive for murder. Also, newspaper reports at the time suggested that Normand had a $2000/week habit – but actress Claire Windsor later pointed out that the amount of cocaine $2000 would have bought in 1922 – you would have needed a dump truck to deliver. So at the very least, her using was grossly exagerated.

 

There’s a book about the Taylor investigation A Cast of Killers, by Sidney D Kirkpatrick which recounts director King Vidor’s attempts to investigate the Taylor case in the sixties – now, it’s semi fictionalised, and many of the detail in A Cast of Killers has been discredited, but it still remains one of the more definitive accounts of the case.

 

One of the theories it suggests, is that Mabel Normand was basically hung out to dry by the studio over the case, as a way of them being able to get rid of an over the hill actress who was on an expensive contract – except that Mabel was still making successful movies until she took the hit of the scandal. And simply because she wasn’t the only powerful woman to have her career all but disappear in a puff of blue smoke in 1922, it all becomes a little bit interesting. One other such woman, was Julia Crawford Ivers – the first studio head. And we’ll get to know her, next week.